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Can Chores Help Children be Better Behaved?

Little girl sitting on a bench beside a giant tree stump.I had something of an epiphany this past week. Beatrice had been growing increasingly bored with playing either on her own or with Claire, and this boredom was expressing itself as the usual suspects: poking her sister, squawking at me, refusing to share. I wasn’t sure what I could do about this. With an 18 month old toddler around the house there wasn’t much dedicated time to pay attention to Beatrice one-on-one without risking Claire destroying some other part of the house, or climbing all over us as we tried to read a story together. I had sort of brushed the situation under the rug in my mind, thinking, “Well, Claire will eventually grow out of this and we’ll just have to wait until that happens.” In the meantime, Bea was still upset.

Then one afternoon, the cat came in and stood beside his food box. Claire toddled over and wanted to scoop out a cup of food for him, and Bea rushed over and wanted to do it too. “That’s my job!” she shouted. “I get to feed the cat!”

“Well Bea, that was your job when you were Claire’s age,” I said. “But now you’re much bigger and there are many more things you are able to do now. Claire can’t do many other jobs, so let’s make feeding the cat her job and we’ll find another big-girl job for you to do.”

“Okay!” Bea stood back and let Claire feed the cat, and we brainstormed some other jobs that she might be able to do. I thought a bit about what job I’d most like to delegate, and what jobs would be within her abilities. We agreed that her new job would be to wipe down the table after meals.

This one simple change sparked off a whole transformation in attitude. She then volunteered to do other jobs – clip a sprig of rosemary from the garden, “read” to Claire while I went to change over the laundry, wash dishes in the sink while I loaded the dishwasher, scrub down the cupboard doors while I mopped the floor. I realized that what she really wanted was to feel competent and needed, and assigning her some chores gave her a meaningful, productive place in the family.

This has extended into smaller things too, things that more easily go unnoticed.  Like giving her bare toast, a butter knife and the butter dish instead of just quickly buttering her toast for her. Letting her pour her own soy sauce, scoop her own yoghurt, put away her own laundry. We haven’t yet gone to the level of making a chore chart or sticker chart to keep track of these jobs, and I suspect doing so would take away a good deal of the joy and enthusiasm that she currently has for doing these jobs. I’d like to nurture her intrinsic motivation as long as I can, and hold off on the extrinsic motivators like stickers, money and treats.

Like so many aspects of parenting, this is something I had read about and knew intellectually, but had to have a real-world reminder to put it into practice. I’d forgotten that she had grown since I last thought about what jobs she could do for herself, but kids grow and change so quickly, and she wasn’t being challenged at all. Now it seems like the more I ask her to try to do for herself, the more she rises to the occasion. It feels like a total transformation, but it’s really just the ongoing, invisible magic of maturation. It’s reminded me that children will live up or down to our expectations of them, and they are generally more capable than we give them credit for.

Do your kids do chores? Are they happy about it? How do you help your kids build up their competence and motivation to help out around the house?

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Holly October 24, 2010, 10:10 pm

    My (almost) three year old does a few things. He has to help collect the laundry and bring it to me when I wash clothes, there are times he needs to entertain his (almost) one year old brother (mainly so I can relax and take three breaths without being attacked LOL)… he also does the buttering his toast, putting jelly on select pieces, helps pour his milk/juice, gets his cups out of the fridge, helps stir when we cook, helps with other small (safe), supervised tasks while cooking, etc. When I am cleaning up the living room he helps by either helping pick items up or following me with a bag/basket…

    Some things he volunteers for and other he is strongly encouraged to assist with :) He doesn’t like to help me clean but he loves to help cook (his father and I are both chefs and food motivated LOL :) ) I see him following us in that :)

    • michelle October 25, 2010, 5:05 pm

      We’ve started letting Bea pour some of her own drinks and are strongly encouraging her to pick up her toys too. Unfortunately, getting her to cooperate with even basic tasks like getting dressed is like pulling teeth some days. And other days, of course, she’s delighted to help. She definitely likes to imitate my work in her play and in helping me – I found her out on the porch awhile ago “canning” recycling paper into old glass jars! :)

  • Emilee December 27, 2010, 12:58 pm

    Great post, I need to get better at this with my son as well…I know he wants to do more things himself and assert his independence and like you mentioned, feel needed and competent.

    Funny that I was just reading this article about rewarding kids for being helpful, I’m thinking though you should hold off indefinitely on the “reward” maybe just make a list of things to help you both “remember” things she can do in case she forgets or gets bored. I remember a mom talking about her son making a list of things he could do when he is bored so she didn’t have to constantly come up with ideas FOR him, so he wrote of course many things such as playing, reading etc..but also, mow the grass, do “chores” etc…I think I would be a much better housekeeper had my mom been able to help us see the reward in having a clean and organized home rather than a $1 for doing what we were “told”.

    http://www.parentingscience.com/helpful-kids-and-rewards.html

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